"The First-Person Industrial Complex," an article by Laura Bennet, was published on Slate today about why the first-person essay about trauma has become a mainstay of so many (especially online) media outlets. The article also examines how the economics that undergird the publication of these essays may harm writers while benefiting publishers.
Links to the article showed up in my Facebook feed from a few different people, all of them writers, all of them women. Some of them were people who themselves publish first-person confessional essays in online media outlets such as Vox or XOJane.
You've all seem the click-bait headlines for these articles. The one that Bennet focuses on is "On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad" by Natasha Chenier. It's confessional. It includes scenes of illicit sex. It went viral. Now part of Chenier's family no longer speaks to her.
What does the popularity of this kind of writing mean for the level of discourse online? Bennet writes, "First-person writing has long been the Internet's native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom."
I'll admit that I've read a lot of this kind of writing. I also read memoir and personal essays. I want to know about other people's lives. I enjoy what Patricia Hampl describes as "the intimacy of this first-person voice, the deeply satisfying sense of being spoken to privately. More than a story we want a voice speaking softly, urgently in our ear."
But I've also had a sense that there is something a little bit worrying about a lot of what I read online. Some of these essays are about deeply traumatic and very private events. What are the writers getting out of publishing them? Is it ok that I read them?
In her article, Bennet suggests that often the writers who publish these confessional first-person essays are trying to launch a writing career. And they tend to be paid very little. Bennet writes that Sarah Hepola, who edits personal essays for Salon, sometimes worries about her contributors, "I try to warn them that their Internet trail will be 'I was a BDSM person,' and they did it for $150."
What's in it for the publishers?
"The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting," writes Bennet.
For publishers, personal essays are akin to newsjacking, just more clickbait for the content machine. They are the inexpensive "human interest" angle used instead of adding new information to the maelstrom that is the news media.
Bennet writes,"...this is, more than anything, a labor problem-writers toiling at the whims of a system with hazardous working conditions that involve being paid next to nothing and guaranteed a lifetime of SEO infamy. The first-person boom, Tolentino says, has helped create 'a situation in which writers feel like the best thing they have to offer is the worst thing that ever happened to them.'"
By no means do I want to undercut the potential of first-person writing. It can change the way a reader thinks about the world. It can heal the writer. It can illuminate a problem that has been long kept in the dark. Indeed, I don't think there is much that it can't do.
But I worry that the writing that is getting published under headlines like, "How Posting Photos of My Cellulite on Facebook Won and Lost Me a Hot Husband" might not be living up to that potential. And it might not be good for the people who write it.